The last moments of The Alma

landlady Kirsty Valentine outside The Alma

landlady Kirsty Valentine outside The Alma on eviction day

It’s 9.20am on a Friday morning and the Alma pub, recently crowned as North London Cider pub of the year by Camra, is busy. It isn’t open. The only drinks being consumed are tea and coffee. Everyone there, locals, friends and supporters, local MP Jeremy Corbyn, writer Pete Brown, are not there to toast landlady’s Kirsty Valentine’s success, but to be with her and offer support as bailiffs are expected at any moment to turf her out.

It’s the culmination of four years of fighting with owners, Enterprise Inns, the pub company (pubco) which own the pub. Kirsty has vigorously campaigned to reduce the rent, claiming it was impossible for her to make decent standard of living; conversely Enterprise claim they have tried to help find a solution.

But the time for negotiation ended on Thursday when Kirsty lost in court.

At 9.30, a representative from Enterprise is standing outside the locked doors of the pub with a man in a hi-vis jacket; he’s the man who will fix shutters to the doors and windows when the bailiff arrives.

Enterprise representative, plus 'shutters man' arrive

Enterprise representative, plus ‘shutters man’ arrive

A locksmith appears. He looks somewhat surprised at the sight inside. ‘I was told this was a non-confrontational job, look at ‘em. There’s dozens in there. No one wants to lose their local.’ He speaks in a friendly manner, with an energetic, north-London ‘geezer’ accent.

When he does arrive, the bailiff is quiet, evidently keen not to be drawn into a confrontation. Still, two police officers pull up in a marked car, there to ensure there is no breach of the peace. Inside the pub, Kirsty is locked in conversations with lawyers trying desperately to come up with a last minute offer which might satisfy Enterprise’s demands. I’m told that Enterprise have said they will not accept any offer and just want her out (Enterprise dispute this).

Just after ten, the bailiff and Kirsty go to a back room of the pub to discuss matters. It’s agreed that they will leave the pub; there is no need for police, and bags of possessions, heaped on the floor start to be taken out.

With tears welling up, Kirsty goes behind the bar one final time and beckons her supporters to come and join her. They line up and hug; one final act of defiance before becoming a statistic, one of the 26 pubs which shut every week. The Alma is now closed.

Kirsty goes behind the bar one final time

Kirsty goes behind the bar one final time

Enterprise insist they are very keen to reopen The Alma as soon as possible, countering fears that it could become a block of flats or a supermarket. In a statement, the company describe the Newington Green site as ‘a great pub with a fantastic community spirit and we want it to continue to thrive’. They also claim that the dispute actually is ‘a clear example where the tied pub model…. has provided extraordinary levels of support, flexibility and ultimately direct financial assistance to a tenant’.

They add: ‘Regrettably therefore, we have been left with no alternative but to revoke her tenancy and will seek to put in place a new operator as soon as possible.’

As for Kirsty, she has lost her home – she lived above the pub – her business and livelihood – ‘they’ve wiped me out in 12 hours’ she says. Friends have rallied round and offered her places to stay while she continues her next move.

‘I can’t even begin to consider anything much because I’m just so, I’m just in shock. It’s a mixture of shock and relief that it’s finally all over.’

As for whether she will return to the pub trade, she is very unsure.

‘I need to go away and sit in the corner for a very long time and contemplate things.’

But considering the tumultuous events of the day, she sounds remarkably chipper and stoical; buoyed by the impressive support during her final moments at the pub.

‘I was so thrilled, it’s made it so much easier to deal with. For many many months, I have wondered what his moment would feel like that and it’s nothing like my greatest fears.I don’t feel ashamed and I don’t feel embarrassed. I feel extremely proud and honoured that everyone stuck by my side. I’m extremely proud I’m going out with my head held high. My staff are very loyal and are extremely upset. It’s a very sad day, but at the same token it’s made it very much easier to know I’m very loved and respected.’

— Joel Taylor

Excellent write up by Joel Taylor of the last moments of The Alma. He has exposed the myth that pubs are closed by bad landlords. Pubs are not closed by bad landlords, pubs are closed by bad pubcos.

The first I knew the bailiffs were moving in was when an alert went out Thursday night, which I was only too happy to re-tweet. And as we can see from Joe Taylor’s excellent article, people turned out Friday morning.

This is how thug Ted Tuppen, chief executive of Enterprise Inns, treats hard working pub landlords, destroys their businesses, kicks them out of their homes, then either finds another mug to lose their life savings, or sells the pub on for redevelopment.

The Alma, until Kirsty took it over, was a pub to avoid. Kirsty put her heart and soul, worked her socks off, into building up the reputation of The Alma. She turned a pub to avoid into a pub worth visiting.

Enterprise is a zombie company, it does not make a profit, it is in debt and can barely meet its interest payments. It screws pub landlords by charging overinflated rents, by forcing them to buy their drinks from the pubco at often near double the market rate. As a result the pub fails. When the pub fails, the pubco either finds another mug to lose their life savings or where the pub occupies a prime site, sells the pub for redevelopment.

Greg Mulholland MP, chairs the All Party Pub Group. During a recent House of Commons debate he described the two largest pubcos, Enterprise and Punch Taverns, as ‘zombie companies’ which do not pay dividends and ‘have no growth plan or export potential’.

Greg Mulholland added: ‘They just about pay the cost of their debt by selling off their assets. That asset stripping is happening now – slash and burn.’ He said that between them, these two pubcos ‘collectively disposed of more than 5,000 pubs between 2008 and 2012 – one third of all their pubs’.

The bailiffs turning up at The Alma Friday morning, is but one example of the slash and burn policy of Enterprise.

Ted Tuppen, for heading a failing pubco, received a basic salary of £640,000, a bonus of £329,000 and pension contributions of £160,000 last year.

In 2009, a Parliamentary select committee looked into pubcos.

According to an article in Private Eye, the select committee asked 1,000 publicans for their opinions regarding their experiences working with Britain’s largest pubcos, which includes Enterprise Inns. The Eye states that the committee’s findings had “at last shed light on an industry in freefall, with 40 pubs closing every week. Pubcos are essentially greedy property companies with a cuddly name – and they own nearly half the country’s pub freeholds.”

The Committee commissioned its own independent survey as part of its inquiry, to determine whether the negative evidence it initially received from lessees was typical of feelings in the industry.

The survey results, printed with the Committee’s evidence, underpinned the Committee’s findings. 64 per cent of lessees did not think their pubco added any value and while a fifth had had a dispute with their pubco, few (18 per cent) were satisfied with the outcome. The Committee was astonished to learn that 67 per cent of the lessees surveyed earned less than £15,000 pa and over 50 per cent of the lessees who had turnover of more than £500,000 pa earned less than £15,000 – a 3 per cent rate of return. The lessees may share the risks with their pubco but they do not appear to share the benefits. The report therefore concludes that problems which were identified by the Trade and Industry Committee four years ago remain. An imbalance of bargaining power between lessees and pubcos persists and the arrangements for assessing rents remain opaque. Rental assessment should be the basis for negotiation, but incumbent lessees often risk the loss of their home as well as their business if they cannot reach agreement, the report says.

The Eye says the committee found that pubco tenants are initially attracted to run pubs by low entry costs, but soon find that making a decent living is very difficult. Tenants’ leases oblige them to buy alcoholic drinks from nominated suppliers at up to twice the open-market price. If a struggling tenant leaves, another tenant can be found to replace them. In the years of booming property prices this practice was successful, but is much less so now, as evidenced by the number of pub closures. The Guardian reported that MPs found an imbalance of power that can amount to “downright bullying” between the big pubcos, such as Enterprise Inns and Punch Taverns, and their tenants In 2008, one tenant who felt forced to close the pub he ran with his wife said:

We told Enterprise [Inns] we were struggling and needed some help; they didn’t come forward with any. If we were late paying bills we would get threatening phone calls. They could have put a hold on the rent or given us a discount until we managed to get business back up. If we didn’t pay bills on time they wouldn’t deliver the beer and when they did deliver it they would charge us for carriage. Instead of helping us they were making it worse.

The MPs wished to see a ban on pubcos selling pub premises with restrictive covenants that prevent them being used as pubs in the future. Ted Tuppen claimed a need for covenants, saying there are too many pubs in some areas and Enterprise used restrictive covenants “because, genuinely, we think these are pubs that have lived their life”. However, he admitted that 70% of Enterprise sales have such covenants in place.

The select committee was not generally impressed by the pubcos’ senior executives, rebuking them for having given “partial” and even “false” evidence to the committee.

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One Response to “The last moments of The Alma”

  1. keithpp Says:

    What happened to Kirsty is by no means a one off.

    The story Angelique tells of Enterprise, is more akin to dealing with the Mafia.

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